Cuong Ta: Math Teacher
Education: BA, UC Berkeley & MPP, University of Michigan

Was there a teacher who was influential in developing your love of math when you were in high school?
My first, and best, high school math teacher was Mr. Katz at Canoga Park High School. He was so clear and made math completely make sense. That was Algebra 2, and it was all about methods. My family and I were refugees from Vietnam in 1975, so I think math was something I could always be really good at even while I was developing my English. But it’s funny, I think about the way I approach teaching math now, and it is so completely different from how I learned math in high school. There’s so much technology now, and the skills that students need aren’t about algorithms, but instead require more problem solving.

What do you remember about moving to the United States as a child?
We settled in the San Fernando Valley when I was nine years old, and there were hardly any Asian people at all. I was in the English as a Second Language program for a couple of years. Math just seemed like something constant and that was something I did well. After some testing, I remember my sixth-grade teacher saying to me, “You know what you really should do when you grow up?” I was really proud of my art, so I thought she was going to tell me how great my art is. She said, “You should pursue math.” It was nice, but it was also kind of disappointing in a way, because I was hoping she would say something else. My path has included many different experiences. I did my Bachelor’s in rhetoric, my Master’s in public policy. Then I became a math teacher after that. As I was teaching math, I picked up ceramics and became a potter as well.

At what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to teach math?
I went to Cal as an undergrad and got involved with tutoring programs in Oakland Chinatown. I spent a lot of time doing that, and served on the board for a while. Then right after college, I had a semester and summer in which I ran the after-school tutoring program at a youth center. That’s where I think my commitment to teaching started. In grad school, when I did my public policy program, I was a teaching assistant. I really loved it because I was the TA for the sections with all my friends who were really afraid of math. I was able to have a great impact on lowering their fear of math and getting them through the program. After grad school, I decided I didn’t really want to become a policy analyst for the federal government—I wanted to get back to the Bay Area and teach.

How would you describe College Prep’s math curriculum, and its impact on students?
By now I’ve had a pretty long career, 29 years, teaching math at the high school level. Over that time, I’ve come to really admire the style that College Prep provides, which is to make the learning centered on the students. In my classrooms lot of the time is dedicated to students doing discovery work with one another. There’s collaboration happening and that’s the crux of the learning. We have a book of problems that they are working through, but its value is for students to discover new ideas and new techniques. I can help with summarizing or coalescing ideas, sometimes anticipating what’s coming up and showing them that, but a lot of it is really driven by their thinking and their efforts in problem solving. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen the significance of students having the experience of problem solving when they don’t know what to do. I think the value of the way we teach here is that students can ask themselves, “What do I know and what can I use to develop the next idea?” They’re creating a greater capacity for problem solving and growing their confidence.

What do you enjoy most about teaching high school math?
I love working with this age group. I think there’s so much growth in the four years that they spend with us. They develop all these skills and then there are certain junctures where they tie things together. It’s like opening up a curtain where they say, “Oh, this is why we did all of this.” Then they see this big, shiny object they’ve been building all along, which is the whole idea. There are those moments where there’s a revelation—that’s really cool. That brings me joy. I think our kids are the kids who really love those moments, as well.

You joined the math department during the pandemic. What was the transition to in-person teaching like for you, having started your classes in a virtual environment?
It’s been a unique circumstance for sure. When I started, I actually felt pretty comfortable with being on Zoom. And most of my students that year were 9th graders, so they were also new to College Prep. During the transition to in person last spring I felt a bit anxious, but we were vaccinated, and it seemed like the school had done such a great job of threading the needle in creating a safe way for us all to be together. With the construction of The Hill Project, I didn’t actually transition to the full College Prep environment until this January. It’s been fantastic to be a part of an in-person school community again. And I certainly loved moving into the new digs here on the Hill.

How would you describe the ways in which you engage with your students to keep them motivated?
College Prep kids are pretty conscientious and motivated already. I think the thing I try to do is to create environments where they get the chance to collaborate with different cohorts, and where they get to encounter challenging problem-solving situations. The kids are really lovely with how they interact with one another and help each other out.

In addition to being a math teacher, you are also a well-established potter. How did you get into pottery? Do you find that teaching complements your craft, or vice versa?
I was working a lot at the time, and a friend told me about taking a pottery class. I thought I’d give it a try. The first time I got on the wheel, I had this amazing learning experience where it felt like I had lived a previous life as a potter and my hands automatically knew what to do. I was instantly hooked, not just to the process itself, but to accessing a prior knowledge that somehow I was channeling or accessing. I was able to do it pretty well very quickly. Within a year I was already beginning to sell my work. It was the most amazing sense of learning and self-expression. In some ways I know that happens in my classroom as well, in the big moments where the students make all the connections. I have that in mind when I’m teaching as well. I ask myself, “How can I provide that experience for the students? How can I lead them to those moments so that they can feel that same joy of learning?”

mens conscia recti

a mind aware of what is right